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MLAs unite to press for a water charge rethink, but ministers aren't listening

By Noel McAdam

The Assembly yesterday demanded a Government re-think on water charges - but remained convinced its plea will fall on deaf ears.

An Ulster Unionist motion urging the Government to determine a cost more acceptable to the public found cross-party consensus.

But fears were also voiced that the charges will result eventually in the privatisation of the service.

The UUP also accepted an SDLP amendment insisting that, in the absence of a known strategic business plan and adequate regulation, there could be no public reliance on the figures the Government is signalling for the charges, which come into effect next April.

Sinn Fein also withdrew another amendment to underline Ulster Unionist MLA Leslie Cree's call for a re-examination headed by Regional Development Minister David Cairns.

There were repeated attacks from all the parties on Direct Rule ministers for failing to listen to concerns raised.

South Belfast MLA Alban Maginness said there was no doubt the Government's proposals were with a view to privatisation and were in effect a " privateer's charter". He said that the Water Service's assets of perhaps £5bn were rich pickings and there would be a huge asset-stripping exercise from who ever takes it over.

Citing Northern Ireland Electricity and the International Airport, Mr Maginness said: "Will we ever come to our senses in relation to selling off public assets which are for the good of all the community? They should not be for the good of private greed."

Alliance's Sean Neeson said the bottom line of the Treasury had been that Water Service assets could be sold off and the money kept in the coffers of the Northern Ireland Executive.

Referring to a letter from former NIO minister, John Spellar, containing reassurances over privatisation, Mr Neeson asked: "Can we trust this government? No, we can't."

But the main parties also came under fire for putting forward the original plan, which eventually led to the imminent water charges.

Bob McCartney said he regretted that it was the previous devolved assembly which, in 2002, had put forward "albeit in embryo form" the proposals from which the province "is now suffering".

Opening the debate, Mr Cree said the Government had produced an affordability tariff but had not made clear whether it would continue to fund it after 2010 or if other consumers would have to pay more.

He described the reforms as a "mishmash" and warned that many groups feared they could fall into the poverty trap.

The DUP's Lord Morrow said it was "constitutionally outrageous" that the Government had put through the legislation containing 308 clauses in an hour and a half via a procedure which did not allow for amendments.

Raymond McCartney (Sinn Fein) said: "This assembly should be in a position to do what it was elected to do."

Belfast Telegraph


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